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Christian Koloko: A Dual Purpose Pick

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First up, congratulations to @ManTheyCallMac for calling the Christian Koloko pick. We’ll have detailed analysis of the selection in the days to come including podcasts and breakdowns, but for now here are some initial thoughts.

It’s difficult to anticipate who teams might be targeting this late in the order, especially for the Raptors who keep their cards close to their chest. Exhibit A was Woj having no clue what the Raptors were going to do – notice the conspicuous absence of #33.

They end up with Christian Koloko, a 7’1″ rookie center out of Arizona who hails from the same town as Pascal Siakam. Make no mistake, this is a defensive move as hinted by Bobby Webster earlier who clearly had prioritized defense.

https://twitter.com/raptorsrepublic/status/1539983944673787905

Here’s a highlight pack to give you an idea:

Though I was enamoured by what little I’d seen of EJ Liddell, the Raptors ended up shoring up their defense instead of going for one of the available scoring options. It turns out that getting eaten alive by Joel Embiid in the post-season makes a mark. Since Embiid isn’t going anywhere it makes sense to plan a response. The Raptors have to live with the likes of Boston, Milwaukee and Philly for the foreseeable future and I see this as a minor countermove. It’s like giving a pawn the chance to become queen. Nick Nurse spoke about the pick and once again focused almost entirely on defense:

Below is a more detailed scouting report courtesy of The Ringer, but Nurse pointed out something the below didn’t: the fact that he’s a “decent pick-and-roll player”. As you might’ve observed all season, the PnR – a staple of NBA offenses – was curiously lacking in Toronto. Khem Birch and Chris Boucher were probably our best PnR bigs, and that’s saying a lot. I’m not suggesting that Koloko will diversify the Raptors offense immediately, but it’s nice to see the Raptors do two things at the same time: improve a demonstrably vulnerable position defensively, and invest in expanding their offensive options.

The most common description of Koloko that came up in the live draft show was “rim runner”, which is exactly the kind of aggression you want in your roll-man. The 72.2% FT shooting is key because at his size he’s likely to get fouled and much like how JV paid dividends at the line, so could Koloko in the medium term. Analysis and grades from Samson, Brendan, Kyle and Mac is linked to the exact timestamp below (3:50:47 – yeah, it was a four hour show):

 

PLUSES
  • Excellent interior finisher who slams home lobs when cutting from the baseline or rolling to the paint. He’s also adept at sealing off his defender deep in the paint, making himself a target, and then fluidly finishing or turning into a jump hook.
  • Improved as a free throw shooter his junior season, hitting a career-high 72.2 percent. He even looked smooth on the limited number of midrange jumpers he took. He’ll certainly work on his ability to hit spot-up 3s leading up to the draft. If it’s working for him, his draft stock will rise because we’ll see shades of Bucks Brook Lopez.
  • Much better passer than his numbers indicate. On the post, he has a feel for drawing in the defense to create an opening for a teammate. Granted, he won’t be asked to frequently post up in the NBA, but it does show his ability to read the floor. He’s also fully capable of operating on the perimeter in dribble handoffs.
  • Nasty shot blocker in help situations. He has good floor sense and can rapidly change directions to block or alter shots. He’s also solid when defending pick-and-rolls as a drop defender.
  • Very mobile for his size. He flourished when switching onto guards and wings at Arizona. He gets a bit too handsy at times when he should back off, but once he gets in a film room and in the practice court with NBA coaches, hours of studying Rudy Gobert should help.
  • Added 15 pounds since his freshman season and has since become a far more effective post defender. Getting even stronger, especially in the lower body, should be prioritized as long as it doesn’t come at the cost of his quickness.
MINUSES
  • He’s come a long way, but he’s still raw. Koloko started to take basketball seriously at age 15 but primarily played soccer until he was 17. He’s made a lot of progress, but he remains unrefined in some areas.
  • Struggled throughout his first two seasons at Arizona and battled inconsistency before his junior season. Maybe things just clicked for Koloko as he grew into his body and matured.
  • Fundamentals still need more development. He makes off-target passes to cutting players and he forces some post entries to Azuolas Tubelis, a 6-foot-11 big who starts next to him. He also sets too many moving screens. But these flaws are easily fixable and his progress is an indicator that he will figure them out.
  • Made only 55 percent of his free throws as a freshman and sophomore. He’ll need to prove he can maintain his improved percentages (up to 72.2 percent this year) to cement his stock.

Much like Siakam he started his basketball career late, is older for his class, and has only played basketball as a primary sport for five years which means he’s raw. This would normally be seen as a negative by some but given the Raptors’ development system, it might be exactly what they want. There’s no unlearning to do when someone is yet to be molded – it’s like acquiring raw materials rather than a product. Here’s our old friend Blake echoing similar sentiments:

It’s interesting that even when picking a center Nurse talked about his ability to switch up on the perimeter, perhaps a tell that the aggressive switching schemes are something that are here to stay. Based on the little I’ve seen of Koloko he’s definitely someone who is more comfortable dropping than pressing on defense, which I think is the right priority. Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby and even Chris Boucher tend to play slightly higher up, leaving the underside vulnerable, so it’s good to add some balance to the equation. I will emphasize again that the returns from Koloko may be a year or two away, so whatever I’m saying must be discounted over time. It’s like calculating NPV but with a favorable interest rate.

He’s likely to spend time at the 905 but given how thin the Raptors are at center we could see with the big club a lot more than one would think. As exciting as that may be, I’d hate for this to be the only move at center because that would mean we’d be entering the season with a significantly below-average center position three years running. Too early to panic, so right now I’m just throwing out some caution.

Another point of interest that came up in the live show was whether the 13 pick drop between 20 and 33 was worth Thaddeus Young. Dabbling in hindsight always seems unfair and more so when acquiring Young did not exactly change how far the Raptors progressed in the post-season. Only time will tell how the players between 20 and 33 will turn out, but it did feel like a blow passing up on Patrick Baldwin Jr., David Roddy and Blake Wesley. At the same time, given the Basketball without Borders and Cameroonian connection, this felt like a targeted move planned well in advance rather than an audible.

Once again, much more to come to Christian Koloko in the coming days. Bye for now.

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